Alaska is far away.
Maybe you think you know this, but however far away you imagine Alaska to be, double that. Because Alaska is really, really far away.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week with other writers on a remote Alaskan island. I wish that each of you could have the chance to be dazzled by the Alaskan sun and scoured by the Alaskan wind. I wish that you could taste King salmon only just pulled from the water.
If a two-day journey isn’t an option for you, what about a book instead?
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Here is a memoir of that same remote island. It is also one of the best memoirs I have ever read.
Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America by Leslie Leyland Fields is the story of a young woman from New Hampshire struggling to make a home and a marriage on a primitive and remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.
This is a memoir of marriage, motherhood, spirituality, and poetry. It is also a memoir of wilderness and the dangerous and exhausting work of commercial salmon fishing.
Even if you can’t imagine enjoying a book about fishing (much less actual fishing!) I highly recommend this book. The writing is stellar, the story captivating, and the whole thing is edged with lyricism.
This is the most particular and most universal of stories. Now, I too, am asking the question at the heart of this book: how do we bear the terrible, beautiful grace that sustains our lives?
This was where we unraveled the rest of our lives, it seemed, even as we sewed up the holes in the nets. There was something about this space, about standing out there on the beach under the open sky – the clouds or sun, mountains on every horizon, though it was ocean all the way to the edge. The walls were gone, how could there be a larger space to stand in, and yet, it became a sort of confessional. – Leslie Leyland Fields
I picked up another Alaska memoir in the bookstore at the Anchorage airport: Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: A True Story of Bad Breaks and Small Miracles by Heather Lende. This one reads more like a collection of personal essays than a cohesive memoir. The tone is cozy and, at times, a little too cute, but Lende’s work as an obituary writer for her small-town paper lends the book some serious depth.
Lende organizes her chapters around the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, but she incorporates other traditions as well, such as Buddhism or Native American spirituality.
I kept this one tucked in the seatback pocket on the long flight from Anchorage to Seattle. At one point, my seatmate asked if she could read it, and I passed it over. She laughed out loud for the rest of the flight.
It’s a good book.
I wonder if to be human is to know that we can’t ever banish pain and ugliness from the world, only learn from it and create something beautiful and good out of it – like the newest totem pole in Sitka, the one called ‘You Are Going to Get Well.’ If you ever see it, you will believe that’s possible. – Heather Lende
One of the guest writers at the Alaska workshop was the novelist Bret Lott. You can’t go wrong picking up any of his fiction (I adore the strange, hilarious, heartbreaking first story in his collection The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories), and his novel Jewel was once an Oprah Book Club pick.
I especially recommend his latest, a collection of essays called Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.
For writers, his essay “On Precision” is outstanding. For everyone, the final long essay on the death of his father is beautifully crafted. I aspire to write personal essays like this one.
As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know. – Bret Lott
I have two bonus recommendations for you today. The first is Girl Meets Change: Truths to Carry You through Life’s Transitions by Kristen Strong, a pretty and practical book for any woman who struggles with life’s transitions.
The second is the most recent book from Emily P. Freeman: Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. I don’t think anyone writes Christian formation quite like Emily. Her writing is accessible but also lovely, straightforward but rich and wise.
In my eagerness to read it, I mistakenly ordered two copies. Leave a comment here, and I will enter your name in a drawing to win one of those copies. A winner will be notified by email.
Tell me, friends. Read any good books lately?
In Alaska, there are many ways to die.
You can die in the air: bush plane, float plane, an airliner in wind and fog. You can die in the sea: barge, skiff, a ferry plunging in the trough. (If you are a sea lion, you can die in the jaws of an orca halfway between your rock and the waves. I have a picture of blood and frenzied sea lions if you are the sort who needs proof.)
You can also die with your feet planted firmly on the ground: bear, cliff, swiftly-shifting weather.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. The shadows are longer. Death lurks out in the open here.
When you become a mother, you count all the ways there are to die: babies sleep but do not wake, daughters fall on the stairs, sons are diagnosed and named incurable.
Later, the ways are counted for you, but they are not the deaths you have already met in your imagination.
One day, you do not recognize how much your boy struggles to breathe, but the pediatrician does. She calls an ambulance from the exam room.
Another day, you forget your child’s epi-pen. Thank God, that stranger in the corner of the shop had one in her purse. You learn, to your sorrow, that death is folded within each moment.
Silent. Hidden. Utterly inseparable from love.
In Alaska, there are so many ways to live.
You live in the air: bush planes and float planes fly low. You soar like an eagle, skim mountaintops, explore islands empty except of bears.
You live on the water: the taste of salt spray on your lips, a diving fin whale almost at your fingertips, sea otters like floating teddy bears.
You live on the land: black-tailed deer who are not afraid of you, tide pools filled with sun stars and blood stars and the deep breathing of anemones.
You have come to the edge of the world. The sun is lower. It is a dazzle in your eyes all day long.
Of what consequence is death when the air is like glittering glass?
If you are a writer, you are often alone. You retreat from family and friends seeking the quiet you need to write.
But one day you step on an airliner. One day you step on a bush plane. One day you wade through the water and heave yourself into a skiff. One day you taste salt spray all the way to Harvester, an island like a boulder tossed across the sea.
You journey to the edge of the world, and you discover you are not alone. The world is as full with stories and with storytellers as it is full with the glory of God.
The stories you find on Harvester Island are intimate with death.
There is the story of the old man and the young boy. They vanished on the water, leaving behind only a dog in a skiff and so many broken hearts.
There is the story of the unhappy wife standing on the edge of the island rock with a small suitcase in her fist. She has arrived at the end of her road. She is alive, but she has already died.
There are so many ways to die, but in Alaska, you learn what is true in every place on earth: there is only one way to live.
The only way to live is to die.
The only way to live is to arrive at the end of yourself and then to keep going (you can do this via bush plane, you can do this via motherhood or marriage or any great attempt at love).
Love is what remains, at the end of yourself, at the end of every beautiful story, at the end of every terrible one, too.
Love is our home. It is the place where death is only a fading legend. A tale we will tell again and again until, like glass smoothed and polished by the waves, it loses every sharp edge.
One day, we will let that old story go; we will drop it there, on the black gravel of the beach. For we have traveled 10,000 years, and we are ready for new stories.
Written in the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. With love for all the writers who traveled to that boulder in the sea. I am glad to have met you, there on that line between rock and water, life and death, stranger and friend.
Another Saturday, another peak at my bookshelves. This one is for the mothers.
I know what you’re thinking. Who has time for reading once they have children? Admittedly, this is how I feel about exercise, but I do know a few moms who make the time. Me, I make time for reading. Every Single Day.
The secret? Lower Your Standards.
It is not possible to keep a pristine kitchen floor and read a novel a week. Priorities, people. It’s about priorities.
With that in mind, here are a few books for Mom.
I gave this one to my own mother a few years ago: Apples for Jam: A Colorful Cookbook (No) by Tessa Kiros.
This is a cookbook by a mom for moms (or anyone who cooks for a family). It doesn’t try to tempt children with smiley faces on pancakes. It doesn’t try to trick children by sneaking spinach purees into the brownies. This is a simple but beautiful book full of comforting, delicious, family-friendly food with a European flare.
This cookbook is all about memories. Creating them. Cherishing them. This is a cookbook that knows family happens around the table.
Apples for Jam is a satisfyingly hefty hardcover book full of beautiful photographs and the author’s own family memories.
Something else: the recipes in this cookbook are organized by color. Pink. Brown. White. And so on. It is wildly impractical and utterly enchanting. Kiros understands that many of us go looking for a recipe, not because we need an “entree” or an “appetizer,” but because we want to feed someone. We want to take care of ourselves and others. Maybe that requires an entree. But maybe that requires something white and beautiful. Or something rich and brown.
My Greek friends remember coming home from school to a piece of white bread, lightly broiled and splashed with olive oil, then sprinkled with some beautiful oregano, crushed between their mamma’s fingers.
This year I sent my mother-in-law Everything That Makes You Mom: A Bouquet of Memories by Laura Lynn Brown. Laura is a friend, but I’ve been excited about her book ever since she shared the concept with me.
This is a gift book, but I hesitate to call it that. Aren’t most “gift books” horrible? Do they ever get pulled from their place on the bookshelf? I’m willing to bet not often.
Everything That Makes You Mom is different. Full of great (read: not sentimental) quotations about motherhood and structured around the author’s own memories of her mother, this beautiful little book asks questions and offers prompts to help us record the big and little things we remember about our Moms.
Complete with your written memories, this would make a great gift for your mother. If your mother is no longer living, this book would make a wonderful keepsake for the next generation.
Mom bought a gravy whisk that we saw in a specialty kitchen store not so much because she needed a gravy whisk, but because its packaging claimed, ‘It scoffs at lumps.’ She gave it a new name: lump scoffer. When she made gravy, she whisked with glee, scoffing at those lumps herself with a single ‘Ha!’
Finally, here is the only parenting book I ever recommend: Parenting Is Your Highest Calling: And Eight Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt by Leslie Leyland Fields.
I could tell you all about this one, but, really, isn’t the title enough? This book will set you free: free to live, to love, to be a whole person as well as a Mom or Dad.
If you or someone you know is feeling overwhelmed by parenthood itself or overwhelmed by all of the guilt-inducing advice send them this book. Trust me. When I first read this book I whispered thank you, thank you, thank you with every page I turned.
We want so badly to get it all right – our marriages, our parenting, our family dynamics. We want to meet all the requirements of a good Christian family. But God takes every hour of our home life, as well as every hour outside of it, and he uses the mistakes, the flaws, the pain as much, if not more, than he uses the good.